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Unions have contributed to a growing middle class in America

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By Marilyn Weich

Susan Fischer’s recent letter to the editor, “Teacher Supports Court’s Union Dues Ruling,” referred to her 30-year teaching career and her ongoing passion for “right-to-work” legislation. Right-to-work (anti-union) legislation for public sector workers already existed in 27 states. 

In right-to-work states, average salaries are lower, most of their teachers are not covered by Social Security, important student academic test scores are lower, and a couple of right-to-work states have switched to a four-day school week in order to spend less on education. No wonder Ms. Fischer chose to teach in New Jersey all these years.

As noted in the Sept. 24 issue of “Time” magazine, the teachers who went out on strike recently in six right-to-work states were earning less, in inflation adjusted dollars, than they had earned in 1990. Some striking teachers reported working two jobs and selling their blood to make ends meet. 

Teachers were using personal funds to purchase student school supplies. Most of the benefits they received as a result of the strikes were limited and short term. Unsurprisingly, right-to-work states were spending $19 billion less on education than they had prior to the Great Recession. So much for the accuracy of Ms. Fischer’s stated belief that if good teachers just play by the rules they will be rewarded. Increasingly, to save money, these states have been recruiting teachers from overseas.

In 1977 the Supreme Court ruled unanimously (9-0) against “right-to-work” legislation for public sector unions. It was known as the Abood decision. The unanimous court found that non-union workers may be assessed “agency fees” to cover union costs for “collective bargaining, contract administration and grievance adjustment purposes” and that objectors may not pay dues for political purposes.

This was the decision of both liberal and conservative judges. The ruling meant non-union teachers would pay a “fair share percentage” of the union expenditures that benefitted both teachers and students. On an individual basis, teachers make voluntary donations (not part of union dues) to political action campaigns that are used for political purposes.

In the August 2018 Janus Supreme Court case, which revisited the 1977 Abood decision, the 41-year precedent was overturned by a 5-4 vote. The deciding vote was cast by Justice Neil Gorsuch.

During his confirmation hearing, Judge Gorsuch repeatedly assured the Senate Judiciary Committee he would respect “precedent” and would be extremely reluctant to overturn previous Supreme Court rulings. Precedent assurances by recent candidates for the Supreme Court have become meaningless. In recent years, 92 percent of all non 5-4 decisions included the vote of former justice Anthony Kennedy.

With the Janus decision, Ms. Fischer’s passion has come to fruition. She will now pay “zero” to the teachers’ union for benefits she will receive. Teachers who continue to pay dues to belong to unions will be providing benefits for all teachers and students. Since Ms. Fischer wrote it was “so un-American” to have to pay a percentage of union dues, wouldn’t it now be “pro-American” for her to forgo the benefits secured by the union teachers who pay for them?

Ms. Fischer expressed the belief that union negotiations don’t really work. She wrote that teachers should just strike, and, that in addition, two strikes work really well. New Jersey has almost 600 school districts. If we follow her “two strike” plan, how many dozens of strikes will New Jersey experience during the 180-day school year? Strikes are costly for everyone – students, parents, taxpayers and teachers. Also, it is illegal for public sector workers to strike in New Jersey.    

Historically, unions in the United States contributed to a robust and growing middle class. Middle class workers could own a home, send their children to college and save for retirement. Unions actually had the effect of lifting the wages and benefits of all workers. The middle class and unions have been shrinking since the mid-1970s, due in no small part to “right-to-work” laws which were designed to destroy unions. The Janus decision assured a further decline of unions and the middle class.

The Trump Administration’s new trade agreement with Mexico went out of its way to incorporate measures to make it easier for workers there to form and join unions.  President Trump believes unions will raise worker salaries and benefits in Mexico. That was put into the trade agreement to discourage American companies from relocating to Mexico for cheap labor. On the other hand, the administration supports right-to-work union busting legislation in the United States.

Marilyn Weich is a resident of Monroe Township.

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